During the current EU debate a frequent complaint from the Leave side is about the pressure that immigrants put on public services, while the Remain side reply with economic studies indicating that immigrants pay more in taxes than they take out.
Both sides have a point – there are definitely more people living in the UK as a result of migration and so there should in theory be a greater demand on public services. However, it is also true that new migrants are typically young, in good health and generally here to work, likely to be putting more into the system than they take out.
But can it be as simple as just that? We are also regularly informed that the biggest pressures on public services are coming from an increasingly older population, so which is it: immigration or growing older?
I thought I would start by looking at what has happened over the last twenty years, when the population has grown by seven million people, from 58 million people living in the UK in 1995 to 65 million in 2015.
Of that increase, four million is due to net migration and three million from natural changes. So there you have it, migration is more than half the increase.
But then I looked at how the increase splits between older and younger people, i.e. those older or younger than 40? It turns out that over the last twenty years, the number of people aged over 40 has increased by six million, while the number of people under 40 has increased by only one million.
And how much of that six million increase in the over 40s is down to migration? Amazingly, I discovered that the answer is (approximately) zero. 17 million people reached the age of 40 over that time, much more than the just over 11 million people who died, a net increase of six million due to natural changes.
Now, just to be clear, there has of course been immigration amongst the over 40s. But, the numbers suggest that they have either been here for 20 years or more or, if they arrived more recently, that there has been equal and offsetting emigration by Brits over 40 who have left the country to work or retire abroad. For the over 40s, net migration has been effectively nil over the last couple of decades.
But of course now I was puzzled. Looking at the overall population it appears that more than half the growth is due to migration, but if I just looked at older people of 40 and over, I discover that 6 million of the increase out of 7 million (85%) comes from those older people, with zero migration involved.
This becomes clearer when we look at the younger age group. This has only increased by 1 million people from 32 million to 33 million, an increase of just 3% over the two decades, compared with the 12% increase in the total population.
Where has all the migration gone you ask? Well, it hasn’t gone; there definitely has been a net 4 million increase in the number of people aged under 40 as a consequence of migration. But, this has been mostly offset by a reduction of three million in the number of younger people through natural changes.
Looked at in this way, it appears that three million migrants have replaced younger workers in the economy, with only one million going towards the overall increase in the total population.
A contrasting picture, as shown in this handy chart:
So what is the answer? Is the increased pressure on public services due to the four million migrants arriving here over the last 20 years net of departures. Or is it down to the 6 million extra older people, which would have happened anyway even if there hadn’t been any immigration?
A question that I will leave with you to ponder.